Poets Nayyriah Waheed and Rupi Kaur are contemporaries, growing their initial followings on Tumblr together and publishing their collections one after another (with the former publishing first). Since then, Waheed has accused Kaur of plagiarism. All art is derivative, but the following examples raise questions about whether Kaur’s work was truly derived or plagiarized.
|if you deserve |
mine will flow from my arms to yours
no effort, no asking.
but, if there is none
you feel wind instead.
that my spirit already
when you smell sweetness
begin harvesting blades in your hands.
– kindness is a form of intelligence
by Nayyriah Waheed, published 2013
|how is it so easy for you |
to be kind to people he asked
milk and honey dripped
from my lips as i answered
cause people have not
been kind to me
by Rupi Kaur, published 2014
These poems messages’ are slightly different because while Waheed writes that she gives “honey” to those who will not take advantage of her, Kaur writes that she is able to give “honey” to people because she has experienced unkindness. Thematically, the poems discuss a feminine kindness, notably portrayed by both with symbolic “honey.” This is a very specific metaphor that, I would argue, was plagiarized by Kaur as she neither transformed the metaphor nor used it distinctly. These selected poems from Kaur and Waheed’s works represent only one example of the eerie similarities between their early works.
In response to plagiarism accusations, Kaur said: “I… feel that plagiarism is such a heavy, loaded word — it can also silence people … We’re living in a world where me and so many other artists are writing about similar topics is just a reflection of our times.” On the topic of comparable themes, she may have a point, but I feel that her unchanged use of the metaphor condemns her. Further, I found it ridiculous for Kaur to state that she feels silenced when in the same lines she silences and gaslights Waheed’s valid accusations and attempts to hold her accountable.
Kaur compares herself to Waheed, stating that such accusations of plagiarism were difficult “specially because you know you both come from communities that deal with a lot. And the reason that both of you are writing is because you’re trying to overcome that pain.” There is so much wrong in so few words, but to address them with regards to plagiarism: It is still theft to copy metaphors to talk about pain. Kaur’s refusal to take accountability for her plagiarism perpetuates a historic cycle of oppression that it seems she is not even aware of. Or simply does not care about.
Race in the Western world is quite nuanced, and I would argue that given the incredible normalization of anti-Black racism, unquestioned, initial understandings of it by non-Black people are nearly always anti-Black. Those of Asian descent, by token of the model minority myth, are inherently complicit in the perpetuation of anti-Black racism. My Asian identity, like Kaur’s, serves as a tool to reinforce the idea that people of color can be successful if they work hard enough, villainizing Black people who struggle to “make it” in a system designed at every step to oppress them.
Perhaps this is why I found Kaur’s claim that they “both [came] from communities that deal with a lot” to be dangerously ignorant. Kaur was not comparing their individual traumas, which, while still problematic, would account for the different ways in which individuals experience oppression. She was comparing the trauma of two communities with incomparable histories in the Western world. Is this ignorance or erasure? Is there any difference? At the end of the day, she fulfills neither her social responsibility nor her artistic one.
When I was younger, I looked up to Kaur for creating space for brown girls and women, Punjabi girls and women, so my discovery of the plagiarism allegations against her by a Black woman was heartbreaking. I can only see her ignorance and insensitivity as malicious, especially given her popularity. She has four million followers on Instagram and commodifies her(?) work through not only publication, but apparel and brand partnerships. It seems Kaur has fulfilled every archetype of the predatory model minority in racial capitalism. What horrible representation.
To Rupi Kaur: Upon the publication of your third collection, remember who you stepped on to get where you are. I am tired of the “girl boss” feminism that idolizes you. There is more to feminism than aesthetic and commercialization. There is more to poetry than aesthetic and commercialization. Thank you, Rupi Kaur, for showing me where I must grow, even if that growth means leaving you behind. Thank you for all the lessons you never intended to teach.